The best way you can help your baby or toddler learn and develop a healthy brain is to unplug the TV and other media screens, and play with them, says the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) whose new policy reiterates, in the light of newer data, their previous recommendation that parents and carers keep children under 2 years of age as "screen-free" as possible.

The AAP released their report and policy statement, "Media Use by Children Younger Than Two Years", on Tuesday at the AAP National Conference & Exhibition in Boston. It also appears online ahead of print in the journal Pediatrics.

The new report and policy confirms the guidance the AAP provided in 1999 for children under 2: that there are more negative than positive effects from exposing this age group to TV and media screens. That policy came more from belief than hard evidence says the AAP, but the new policy, which has the same message, is based on evidence that has since emerged about children's early brain development and how different types of stimulation and activity influence their early learning processes.

Lead author of the policy, Dr Ari Brown, who is a a member of the AAP Council on Communications and Media, told the press that:

"The concerns raised in the original policy statement are even more relevant now, which led us to develop a more comprehensive piece of guidance around this age group."

The AAP reports that in a recent survey, they found 90% of parents said their under-2s watched some form of electronic media. On average, children of this age watch TV for one to two hours a day, and by age 3 nearly one third have TVs in their bedrooms.

The survey also found that parents who agreed with the statement that educational television is "very important for healthy development" are twice as likely to keep the TV switched on all or nearly all the time.

In their new report, the AAP group set out to address two questions: Do video and TV programs offer any educational value for the under-2s? And does watching them harm this age group?

The report concludes that:
  • Although many video programs aimed at babies and toddlers are marketed as "educational" there is no evidence that they are.

  • Programs are only educational if children understand the content and context of what is being screened: studies have shown consistently that only the over-2s have this understanding.

  • Unstructured play is more valuable for the young developing brain than watching electronic media.

  • Unstructured play gives young children the opportunity to think creatively, learn how to problem solve, develop reasoning and develop motor skills.

  • Free play also helps them learn how to entertain themselves.

  • Young children need to interact with humans, not screens, and they learn best this way.

  • Watching TV and videos with your child may increase their understanding, but he or she will learn more from a live presentation.

  • Watching your own program when your young child is with you is "background media" for them and it detracts from the interaction between you: it may also interfere with their learning.

  • Watching TV and videos at bedtime is not a good sleep habit: it disrupts healthy sleep which can affect mood, behavior and learning.

  • Research shows that young children who watch a lot of TV and other media have a higher risk of delayed language development when they start school, although the reasons for this are unclear.
In the light of this information the policy recommends that if they choose to expose their under-2s to screen media, then parents and carers should have a strategy for managing the exposure and set limits. But it points out the AAP prefers they not be exposed to media at all at this age.

The AAP also recommends parents and carers employ other ways of stimulating children's learning when they are busy doing what they have to do. For instance, instead of placing young children in front of a screen while you prepare meals or do chores, have them nearby engaged in supervised play, such as playing with nested cups on the floor.

They also recommend that you don't put a TV set in your young child's bedroom, and recognize the damage that your own media viewing can have on their learning and development.

The report calls for more research to examine the long-term effect that early media exposure can have on the physical, mental and social health of children.

Brown says the best thing you can do for your young child to help them learn and develop is to engage him or her in unstructured play: both with yourself and independently.

"Children need this in order to figure out how the world works," he urges.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD